The Desire for Fake News Lives in All of Us

President Donald Trump talks to reporters on the South Lawn of the White House, June 26, 2019. (Joyce N. Boghosian/White House)
Before we can tackle the problem, we must admit that it is a problem of demand, rather than supply.

President Donald Trump will occasionally, at rallies or press conferences, just point to a reporter or a group of reporters and say, “You are fake news.” It’s a crowd pleaser at the rallies. But in a way, by pointing a finger directly into the camera bays, he is pointing at all of us. And I feel accused.

More on that in a minute. Over at Yahoo News, Michael Isikoff reports that a conspiracy theory about the July 2016 murder of Seth Rich, the 27-year-old employee of the DNC, originated from Russian intelligence operations. Police in Washington, D.C. have not solved the murder, but believe that Rich was robbed or had a confrontation with robbers.

The unsolved death of a person in politics — especially someone believed to have sensitive information on a presidential candidate — rather naturally becomes an occasion for ridiculous speculation. Some theorized that he was connected to the massive leak of DNC emails in 2016, or that he was exposing the Clinton Foundation to the FBI when he was killed.

The theory that Rich was about to blow the whistle on Hillary Clinton was promoted by Julian Assange of WikiLeaks, who said after Rich’s death, “There’s a 27-year-old who works for the D.N.C., who was shot in the back, murdered, just two weeks ago, for unknown reasons as he was walking down the street in Washington.” Assange would neither confirm nor deny that Rich was a source; he just heavily implied it, by hinting that Rich’s death was the kind of risk that people who came to WikiLeaks with information faced.

It is up to our intelligence agencies to counter and, as much as possible, stop disinformation campaigns that originate in a rival power’s intelligence apparatus. And it is up to news editors and journalists to develop their B.S. detectors. But let’s be honest and admit that the problem of fake news is a problem of demand, rather than one of supply.

While I was writing this, I shared a fake Hillary Clinton tweet about the Jeffrey Epstein saga with a British friend. Though we both knew it was a parody, it was good for a laugh. And he shared it with his Instagram following. Most of his followers surely get it. Some won’t.

People share fake news — or create it — just to express themselves. In his review of Aziz Ansari’s new stand-up special, NR’s Robert VerBruggen points to a bit where Ansari invites the audience to remember the story about the pizza with toppings shaped like a swastika, and asks if they thought it was deliberate or it was just a normal pizza. The audience members take sides. The key to the joke is that the pizza story was itself made up. Fake news can be generated just because a bit of disconnected information flies across our screens, and we know how we ought to feel about it. That’s how polling institutes get Americans to decide whether they want to bomb or take refugees from Agrahbah, the fictional kingdom of Disney’s Aladdin.

But it’s not just for amusement or the satisfaction of confirmation bias that consumers welcome fake news. Humans embrace counterfeits all the time. They buy counterfeit bags and watches to create the counterfeit appearance of wealth. They settle for fake sex, and fake Internet romances. They even keep in the back of their minds that it is fake. They do it for entertainment and distraction. They do it to express themselves.

Fake news grows out of human boredom and felt powerlessness. Hillary Clinton had the power to kill, and occasionally lusted in it. “We came, we saw, he died,” she said of Colonel Qaddafi. Her preferences could be translated and acted out upon the world. Just expressing her preferences seemed to make her richer and wealthier.

Most of us inhabit a different position in life. We have bosses who tell us what to do. We have bills and need to figure out how to pay them. Maybe we have creditors or even a parole officer to satisfy. That is, we don’t have much power. And so when the news comes around that someone you’ve never heard of got killed for unknown reasons, and the victim was connected to the powerful and rich people you hate, you do have one dark little power: to smile and choose to believe the worst, or at least to say you do. The appeal is in the sweet but small-minded satisfaction of knowing that “they” are mad you believe it.

The problem of fake news is rooted in every human heart.

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